Imperialism, Finance Capital, and World War

Very rarely do theoretically-oriented analyses of historical events prove true. World War I was a different matter.

In 1917, Vladimir Lenin described the causes of the “Great War” as ultimately tied to the economic philosophies espoused by European nations at that time. Capitalism in its finance capital stage is what Marxist philosopher and literary critic Fredric Jameson describes as a state wherein organizations use political means to increase their dividends. Lenin describes capitalism in the pre-war era as fundamentally exploitative, using political power to subjugate the wills and exploit the labor of individuals in colonial domains. Further, capitalism in this period was a “capitalism of trusts, syndicates, and cartels” powered by “state-controlled capitalist production.” Instead of businesses taking control of the state (as in the U.S. from the mid-1990s to the 2008 financial crisis and beyond), the State threw on the garments of capitalist domination.

As such, the largest and most important economies of the time, Britain and Germany, were in competition. In the logic of finance capitalism, the operative goal is to increase one’s domain of economic and politic influence. It was only a matter of time before Germany and Britain butted heads due to their adherence to this logic of conquest and a belief in their “’sacred’ right to plunder.” The events leading up to the war include an economic competition between the two countries as a veritable powder keg waiting to explode into outright conflict at the first opportunity. Lenin’s identification of the causes of the war seems not only sensible but completely accurate.

Woodrow Wilson’s identification of the problems leading to World War I, as explained in his “Fourteen Points,” differs from Lenin’s to some degree. Wilson believed that the war began due to “secret covenants entered into in the interest of particular governments.” His view of the war is as an unfortunate accident. The Black Hand adherent Gavrilo Princip killed the archduke Ferdinand and pacts between the countries involved forced Germany and Britain, among others, to begin fighting. However, if he had just gone a bit deeper in his analysis and asked the critical question of why so many “secret covenants” between countries were enacted, he may have identified the problem outright. Britain and Germany entered into these relationships with other countries primarily to broaden their spheres of influence and economic domination. Without the foundational desire to exploit others and foment economic imperialism, these secret pacts would not have been created, and the war could have been avoided.


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